A Guide to Raising & Marketing Heritage Breed Meat Chickens
by Wesley Hunter of Seymour, MO
My introduction to farm-raised poultry came while working at a friend’s farm in the spring of 2010. Along with a thriving veggie CSA, a few meat hogs, a flock of laying hens, and a handful of half-wild guineas, he raised multiple batches of meat chickens per year. These chickens were, as might be expected, the standard Cornish-Rock Cross (hereafter CRX), and they had, of course, all of the upsides found in modern meat birds: rapid growth, low feed conversion rate, high meat yield, and overall low cost of production. As such they were, and are, an understandable choice for the small farmer. But they also had, of course, all of the downsides associated with such birds: fragility, high mortality and morbidity rates, sluggishness as they aged, and, one might say, general unpleasantness.
To be fair, the CRX is not the monster that it is often portrayed as, doing nothing but sitting in front of the feeder all day and thinking up ways to die. But neither are the birds voracious, active foragers emitting a general air of health and vitality, and one can pick up only so many handfuls of dead nearly-grown chickens before thinking that there is surely something wrong here. By the end of that summer I had come to the conclusion that I really did not like the CRX and that they didn’t have a place on my own “someday” farm. A couple of years down the road, my “someday” farm was a reality, and heritage meat chickens were near the top of our list of potential enterprises.
In planning and implementing my own poultry enterprise, I came to find it odd that modern pastured-poultry producers have almost unanimously adopted the bird that was built for massive industrial confinement houses. They decry the production models of the Tysons and Perdues of the world, then forge ahead with the very centerpiece of those models: the industrial chicken itself. They sell in small quantities to local food-conscious consumers a bird intended to be sold en masse in supermarkets and fast food joints to the largely food illiterate. I have read and fully understood the reasons given for this choice — largely based on marketability and price point — yet still can’t help but wonder at it. Yes, a pasture-raised CRX chicken is better than a fecal-factory-raised bird of the same breeding, but is it really, truly, good? My vote is no.
To be fair to the birds and their farmers, many producers report little to no problems with the health of their CRX flocks. My understanding is that the current chosen tactic for pastured-poultry producers to limit health-related death losses and morbidity in those CRX flocks is to feed in a 12-hours-on, 12-hours-off schedule. These birds, however, were made with a 24-hour appetite. (In confinement houses the lights are continuously on, giving the birds the opportunity to eat constantly.) In other words, the way to increase animal welfare by reducing death losses and morbidity is to decrease animal welfare by keeping the birds hungry. Maybe that’s a worthwhile trade-off to some, but it is important to understand that this is the treatment of a mere symptom and not a true cure. That said, this article wasn’t intended to persuade anyone for or against this or that chicken but to detail my past and ongoing experiences with heritage meat birds with the hope of inspiring some who may wish to try a similar enterprise.
In research done to fine-tune our own model, reading old poultry books from the late-1800s to mid-1900s, I have been surprised and amused at how little has actually changed and have in part questioned the very necessity of an article such as this. But as the farmers of yesteryear raised what we today would consider “heritage” breeds because that is simply what they had, for us it is a conscious and – perhaps difficult – choice. And as the farmers of yesteryear marketed their birds largely through wholesalers and dealers, when there was a strong and consistent market for such products, we today must direct market our goods in a world of throwaway commodities to consumers who are unfamiliar with what a real chicken ought to look and taste like. So I offer this article in the context of modern pastured poultry production, where a change in breed selection necessitates a change in rearing method and marketing techniques.
Why Heritage Chickens?
The question of why one ought to consider raising heritage meat chickens can be approached, I think, from two different angles: farm-based reasons for the actual raising of heritage birds, and the marketing advantages that heritage birds offer for the small farmer. Concerning the former, one can find other sources that detail the various reasons more persuasively than I can, but I shall briefly elaborate on why I have chosen to raise heritage chickens. One, they preserve genetic diversity. Some estimates put the number of meat chickens raised in the USA that are some version of the industrial Cornish-Rock Cross at north of 90%. That’s a scary thought. Two, heritage birds allow for flock improvement through selective breeding. That means that each successive generation ought to be better than the one that preceded it. You can’t do that with an industrially bred hybrid that doesn’t breed true-to-type. Three, these breeds are healthier, not being subject to crippling from excessive growth rates, sudden death from heart attacks, etc., and are hardier, requiring no pampering on the part of the farmer. Four, heritage birds provide a higher quality meat. Because they are twice as old or older than the hybrid varieties at processing time, and because they have a normal growth rate that allows them full functionality, they forage a great deal more and develop a higher level of muscle tone. This results in meat with a deeper flavor and firmer texture. And five, I just find them more enjoyable to raise. If something happens and they go without access to water for a few hours during the heat of summer, I don’t have to worry about finding a shelter full of dead birds. And I don’t have to watch full-grown birds drag themselves from the feeder to the waterer and back again, feeling like I’m doing them a favor when I wield my killing knife. I can instead know with each bird that I process that I have raised it well and that it lived a good, full life before becoming someone’s dinner. That’s priceless.
And then there are the marketing advantages that heritage birds offer for the small farmer. Heritage chickens are a distinctly niche product, and niche production is a boon to the small farm. To be sure, pastured poultry generally is a niche product, but one that is becoming more and more common in many local markets. By opting specifically for heritage birds we further differentiate ourselves and our farm. While the knowledge of and demand for heritage chicken is far from overwhelming here in southwest Missouri, I am happy that, at the very least, I can confidently tell any prospective customer that our chickens are better than any other they will find locally. If we were raising CRX, I couldn’t reasonably make that claim, as our production model would not be significantly different than many others locally. There is also the potential advantage of offering a breed of chicken with an interesting local history. To date there is no standardized “Ozark” breed of chicken, but in those locales with synonymously named breeds this provides a distinct and unique advantage (more on that below). The history of the CRX, on the other hand, resonates with no one.
A Note on Terminology
There are a number of terms used to describe meat chickens, the most common being “broiler,” “fryer,” and “roaster.” At one time these terms were quite specific: a “broiler” was anything up to about 3-1/2 lbs., a “fryer” from 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 lbs., and a “roaster” over 4-1/2 lbs. (These terms and weight ranges were not standardized, and the specifics certainly varied a bit from place to place, but this at least gives you a ballpark idea. Also, these refer specifically to young birds and do not apply to capons or mature cocks or hens.) And though there were variations from breed to breed, those weight ranges also implied a certain age range; a 4-1/2 lb. “roaster” was a good bit older than a 2 lb. “broiler” and was consequently a considerably different product on the table. Nowadays the terms seem to be used more or less interchangeably. In my neck of the woods some farmers sell all their meat birds as “broilers” while others call theirs “fryers,” regardless of weight or age. With modern hybrid meat birds, even if we did adhere strictly to the above weight parameters for applying specific terms, the age difference between, say, a “broiler” and a “roaster” might be as little as a week or two, small enough to not have a dramatic effect on the cooking qualities of those particular birds. Personally, I would like to see the poultry market mature to the point that once again these specific terms actually carry some weight (no pun intended), so that when a customer wants a “broiler” she gets a broiler and that when she wants a “roaster” she gets a roaster, and that those terms encompass a certain set of characteristics that tell the customer exactly what she’s getting, what the meat is going to be like, and how it ought best be prepared. This, of course, would only be relevant when dealing with heritage chickens. Indeed, the day may come where such a system of terminology is integral to the very success of a heritage chicken enterprise.
There is an additional category that I will touch on here, the poussin or “spring chicken.” Sometimes these are called by another French term, coquelet. The heritage breeds will mostly fit this category around 8 to 9 weeks of age. In the past we have marketed them as “Cornish hens,” since that is more familiar terminology, but we’re working on transitioning our customers over to calling them poussin. Technically, the poussin probably ought to fall under the category of “broiler,” but I’ll keep it separate since it produces a bit different end product.
Breed Selection & Acquiring Chicks
There are a multitude of breeds and varieties to choose from, and a multitude of reasons to choose one breed over another. I cannot anticipate all of the factors going into your own decision, but I’ll throw out some that you may wish to take into account as you proceed with your own heritage chicken enterprise. With few exceptions, the heritage breeds most suitable for meat production will fall under the category “dual purpose,” a good starting point when selecting your breed or breeds.
Perhaps the simplest method is to start with the breeds that have a history of meat production. Primarily this means the Plymouth Rocks (specifically the White Rocks and Barred Rocks), New Hampshire Reds, and Delawares. These are big birds that grow at a respectable rate, gaining weight efficiently, and you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better starting point. These breeds grow out quickly and efficiently, and even hatchery stock has maintained moderately meaty characteristics. The Rhode Island Red is another commonly raised big breed, but since the New Hampshire was selected out of Rhode Island stock that grew and matured quickly, it makes more sense to me to opt for the New Hampshire.
You might also wish to choose your breed(s) based on your own geographic location and the markets you will be pursuing. If I lived in Ohio, I’d raise Buckeyes and make a big fuss about it. In New Hampshire, I’d raise New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Islands in Rhode Island, Jersey Giants in New Jersey, and so on. On the other side of the pond you’ve got the Sussex, Cornish, Orpington, among others, and a handful of French breeds besides. Maybe the latter would be good choices for French-settled areas in America that maintain strong aspects of French culture (e.g. New Orleans). Your emphasis on local production can extend all the way down to the specific breed(s) you raise.
There is a noticeable difference in meat flavor and texture from breed to breed, although the biggest difference is between the slow-growing heritage breeds as a whole and the fast-growing modern hybrids. Our farm’s marketing angle is that we have selected breeds that offer a lot more on the table than the CRX; we have not tried to sell people on the idea that we have the unanimously-decided best tasting single chicken breed available. One, that’s entirely subjective, and two, I like variety and don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I also don’t want to have to be continually on the lookout for another breed that might be better than the one we’ve chosen, just so we can continue to market our birds as unequivocally the best. But if you want to capture your segment of the market with the idea of absolutely top-notch chicken meat, there are a few breeds that are commonly regarded as being near-unparalleled. The Sussex and Dorking, both of English origin, have some loyal followers (I can attest that the Sussex is, indeed, absolutely delicious), and the French breeds (Crevecouer, La Fleche, Houdan, Faverolle, and perhaps Maran) are highly regarded as well. Generally speaking, these breeds are considered to have a finer-grained flesh than most others, and that trait is apparently linked to increased flavor. On a slightly different note, the Dominique is reported to taste like pheasant and the Ameraucana like quail, but personally I’d want to be darn sure I really knew what I was talking about before I made an attempt to sell someone on that. Having never eaten pheasant or quail, I’m not going to try that particular marketing angle. I would not expect any of these particular breeds to be as economical as some of those listed above, at least not before a few generations of selective breeding. Perhaps there is the option of charging an even higher price per pound for first-rate gourmet chicken to offset this, though that will put you into an even smaller niche.
The last, or perhaps the first, point to consider when choosing a breed is feather pattern. If you are raising your birds in a free-range or day-range method, where they have ready and constant access to the great outdoors and concomitant susceptibility to predation, I would suggest staying away from the white-feathered breeds. Our white birds simply get hammered. If they will be confined to a pasture pen (or “chicken tractor”) for the duration of the grow-out period there’s less need for concern, but a white chicken on open pasture is fast-food to a hawk. (To be clear, this is not limited to solid white birds; chickens with the “Columbian” [e.g. Columbian Wyandotte] or “Light” [e.g. Light Sussex or Light Brahma] feather patterns are included.) This is, of course, assuming you do not have a livestock guardian animal that will deter aerial predators. Depending on predator pressure you’re going to lose a chicken here and there no matter what their feathers look like, but by opting for non-white birds you ought to cut your losses by a good bit. The other consideration regarding feather pattern is the possibility of marketing the feathers after processing. Fly-fishermen who tie their own flies often use feathers (perhaps the feathers can be sold to a local outfitter shop), and I’ve seen hackle, saddle, and tail feathers marketed to crafters through online shops.
To date, we have raised the following breeds: White Plymouth Rock, Barred Plymouth Rock, Partridge Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire Red, Black Jersey Giant, White Jersey Giant, Naked Neck (aka “Turken”), Light Brahma, Cuckoo Maran, Buckeye, Speckled Sussex, Salmon Faverolle, Dominique, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Columbian Wyandotte, and Dark Cornish. The White and Barred Rocks (but not the Partridge variety) were fast growing and relatively feed efficient (compared to the other heritage breeds), as were the New Hampshires. The Jersey Giants grew big, but because of a different management scheme I didn’t keep detailed feed consumption and efficiency records on them, so I don’t know exactly how they compare. The Naked Necks, though oddballs to look at, were nearly as feed efficient as the Rocks. (Not only do Naked Necks lack neck feathers, they also have up to 60% fewer feathers in total, and since feathers are composed largely of protein it seems more protein in the feed goes toward muscle growth rather than feather production.) The Brahmas and Marans grew out well, but as with the Jersey Giants I didn’t keep detailed feed records. The Buckeyes were middle of the road. The Sussex and Faverolles, and to a lesser extent the Partridge Rocks, dressed out small. The Dominiques were smallish and not terribly feed efficient. The Wyandottes, which are commonly considered good meat birds, were disappointing, being both fairly feed inefficient and providing smallish carcass sizes to boot. The Cornish were slow growing and small, though they did provide a nicely rounded, plump carcass.
With hatchery stock we have lost disproportionately high numbers of certain breeds, specifically the Sussex, Faverolle, and Maran. These death losses have occurred when we’ve had multiple breeds mixed together in the same brooder, where the other breeds thrived. I suspect this is the result of a smaller available gene pool of some of these breeds and likely a shift in focus in breeding from production to exhibition. This is, I think, going to be an obstacle to overcome once you start venturing into some of the more uncommon breeds and varieties. Perhaps the problem will not always manifest itself in actual death losses, but in lack of vigor and thriftiness and lower production overall. This is not to dissuade anyone from raising these more obscure breeds — indeed, if anything it ought to serve as an impetus to breed them for production qualities and bring them back into the playing field — but that downside needs to be kept in mind.
The above recommendations regarding size and rates of growth and meaty characteristics are assuming you are starting with hatchery stock. This is probably the easiest way to get into raising heritage chickens, and is what I would recommend for those just getting their feet wet. But there are some dedicated breeders who have been actively selecting certain breeds for meaty characteristics, so whatever I might have to say about those breeds generally will not apply to these specific strains. For example, there are multiple strains of Buckeyes and Delawares that have been bred for production qualities that would surely rival any of the Plymouth Rocks I’ve raised in terms of feed efficiency and cost of production, if not outright surpass them. The cost per chick is going to be considerably higher, and indeed it may be difficult to access some of these birds. I can’t imagine it would pay to purchase all of one’s butcher stock in this way, but if you have the means and ability to breed such chickens they could be a great way to jump-start your own locally-adapted breeding flock. Actively breeding and hatching our own chicks is still a year or two down the road for us, but developing such birds will certainly strengthen any heritage chicken enterprise.
There are, of course, many hatcheries across the country where one can purchase many of the above listed breeds, and I can only assume that the specific qualities of any given breed will vary from hatchery to hatchery. As such, I won’t recommend any particular hatchery since there are so many variables. But there are some things to consider regardless of where you purchase your chicks. One, the discount for purchasing in quantity can be significant. In 2013 I purchased 25 cockerels each of eight different breeds, for the purpose of comparing the growth rates and feed consumption and overall cost of production of each, and paid around $1.25 each. But the hatchery rate for 100 cockerels of one breed is in the ballpark of $0.75 each, or $0.50 less per chick; put another way, by buying 100 chicks of one breed instead of 25 chicks of four breeds, I gain $0.50 in net profit per bird right off. Two, many hatcheries offer something like a “Fry Pan Special,” which is cockerels of what they term the “heavy” breeds. This past year, the cost from our local hatchery for this special was $0.37 per chick, another $0.40 per bird profit. These specials, however, will tend to include cockerels of the various hybrid layers (Red Sex Link, Black Sex Link, Golden Comet, etc.), so you can either figure out how to market them as “heritage” (to my knowledge most are simply F1 crosses of the standard breeds) or just ask if the hatchery can substitute standard-bred birds for those hybrids. Three, as is commonly known the cockerels of the various laying breeds are seen as little more than throwaway birds (which is why the hatcheries offer them at such a significant discount as above), since they can’t lay eggs and they don’t grow like a CRX. They are frequently euthanized. So when we picked up our first batch of chicks in 2014, I asked if they might have any surplus unsold cockerels from the previous day’s hatch at a discount and was quoted a price of $20 per hundred, an even better price. We loaded up and took this as an opportunity to try some breeds we might not otherwise attempt to raise. This may require having a hatchery that is located reasonably close, but even if you have to purchase chicks through mail-order it would be worth contacting your chosen hatchery to see if they might offer a similar deal. Of course, there’s no guarantee of chick or breed availability when operating this way, since it’s usually a day-of affair, but I don’t foresee a run on heritage breed cockerels any time soon.
I don’t know that I can prescribe brooding guidelines specific to heritage birds, if they even exist, but I can provide an explanation of what we do and why. There are some folks who take a great deal of care and effort in brooding chicks. For better or worse, we are not those folks. We brood in a homemade wooden box, approximately 6’ by 6’, that is housed in an uninsulated detached garage. Our heat source is one to three hanging brooder lamps with 250 watt bulbs (we tend to need all three lamps for batches started in March into mid-April, and only one lamp for those started later) for around 200 chicks. I don’t bother using a thermometer to monitor the temperature, but make adjustments as indicated by the chicks’ behavior. Though the heritage birds feather out at about the same rate as the CRX, they grow a lot slower, so we tend to keep our first couple of batches in the brooder for five or six weeks to give them time to gain sufficient body mass to cope with our typically cool, wet spring weather. Later batches, however, will be moved out to pasture at an earlier age, three weeks or so. We do make an effort to keep the chicks in the brooder well supplied with greens, harvested by hand from the yard, to get them started off foraging well. This is good advice for any pasture-raised bird, but I can only assume it is especially so for the heritage birds which will be on pasture for a significantly longer period of time.
We house our chickens in homemade portable hoop structures made of welded wire cattle panels on a 2×4 lumber frame. The footprint is 8’ wide by 12’ long, which accommodates three 50” tall cattle panels (with a little to spare). With an 8’ wide structure and 16’ long panels, we get a peak height above 6’, which allows me (at 6’2”) to walk in comfortably. It sure beats one of those 2’ high chicken tractors in that regard. The panels are covered with a medium-duty tarp, the ends are framed in with 1×3 lumber, and 1” chicken wire keeps the predators out. After three years of use, I have found a number of details I intend to tweak going forward. Highest on the list is the addition of sufficient roost bars. We have toyed with adding some rather rudimentary roost bars in the past, but never found a way to do it well. But in 2015 we faced a dramatic increase in predator pressure, losing many birds to predators that would reach in under the shelters and grab chickens sleeping near the edge. Had we had sufficient roost space, the birds most likely would have been up out of harm’s way. Again, with a much longer grow out period for the heritage breeds, these little details add up to be rather significant; we face the possibility of predation on a single batch of chickens for a much greater length of time than those who raise the CRX.
Another benefit of roost bars is that, unlike the abnormally heavy hybrid breeds which have either no desire or no ability to roost off the ground, the heritage breeds relish the opportunity to do so. No, providing roost bars is not strictly necessary, but roosting is what chickens want to do when they bed down for the night, and though I can’t prove it I can only imagine it’s to their benefit to allow them to do so. If there are no roost bars available and the birds are raised in a free-range or day-range system, they will often choose to roost on top of the structure when bedtime comes. Such chickens make great owl fodder. So give your birds roost bars. You may have to knock them off the top of the shelters and usher them back inside on occasion until they’ve got the idea, but it’ll save you dead chickens and it’ll make them happier. (An easier method is to simply feed them inside the shelter in the evening [making sure they’re a bit hungry at bedtime helps], shutting the door once they’re all safely inside.)
If you are raising your birds confined to their pasture pens, I would recommend a lower stocking rate than you might use with the CRX. For one, the heritage breeds will forage a good bit more than the CRX, so a lower stocking rate gives more available pasture per bird. And two, because they take so much longer to grow out, I would be concerned that those extra few weeks cooped up in the pasture pens would result in greater stress and likely lower gains if stocked at the same rate as the CRX. (Remember, the CRX was bred to be packed by the thousands into industrial chicken houses.) Seems there’s a big difference between being in a pasture pen for 4 weeks and being in one for 12 weeks. Specifically, I would suggest that an 8’ x 12’ shelter house no more than 50 heritage birds, rather than 75 or so CRX; even fewer would not be unwarranted. This is not based on any sort of documented and measured production difference, but on a sort of gut feeling of what is ‘right.’ If you’re allowing the birds to range during the day then stocking rate is less important, as the chickens will primarily only go inside to roost at night. In that case, you could probably house upwards of 125 birds fairly easily, so long as there was adequate roost space.
General Rearing Guidelines
A few words on some general aspects of poultry rearing that are particular to heritage birds. The heritage breed cockerels will begin displaying secondary sexual characteristics well before butcher age. A pen full of cockerels will squabble in earnest before they reach a respectable butcher weight. I don’t know for certain, but it stands to reason that the greater space allowed per bird, and therefore lower stress level, the less this squabbling will affect their growth and production. They will also begin crowing well before they’re table-ready, which ought to be considered if noise is a concern (say, in a suburban area).
It also needs to be considered that heritage birds take approximately twice as long to grow out as the CRX. This has multiple implications. For one, as mentioned above, risk of death loss to predation (and to a lesser degree weather events) is more or less double, simply because the birds are subject to predation for twice as long (this may be offset by a better ability to flee from predators in a free range environment). There is also the lost “opportunity cost,” since for any given shelter and time parameters a farmer could raise two batches of CRX for every one batch of heritage birds. Then there is the matter of recouping one’s investment: a farmer will have more money tied up per bird, and it will take approximately twice as long to realize a return. These are not necessarily negatives, just things to be kept in mind.
Feeding Guidelines, Options, & Methods
Feed is by far our biggest expense in raising heritage meat birds, and it behooves us to reduce it as much as possible. For our first for-market batch of heritage birds, in 2013, we fed the chickens a pre-formulated 19% protein non-GMO chick grower from start to finish. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was largely unnecessary. Such rations are formulated for the “high-octane” CRX, and I began to suspect that they were overkill for our heritage birds. So for the first couple batches of 2014 we fed the same thing, but toward the end of the grow-out period I threw in a little cracked corn to stretch the feed a little further and to put a bit of “finish“ on the birds. Then I started thumbing through some old (1940s to 1950s) poultry books and read up on feed guidelines given for those pre-industrial birds. The standard practice then was to reduce the protein level of the feed gradually, then to fatten the birds for market on a different ration altogether.
So we took our last batch of birds of 2014 and drew up a little experiment. The batch was split into two groups at 8 weeks, with “Group A” continuing to receive the 19% protein feed, while “Group B” received the same feed cut with cracked corn to bring the protein down to 16%, then at 12 weeks it was cut with more corn to bring the total protein down to 14%. Both groups were finished for 10 days on straight cracked corn. We processed the chickens one breed at a time (the entire batch consisted of White Plymouth Rocks, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and New Hampshire Reds), keeping Group A and Group B separate. Our weights were lower than expected, due to being a late-started batch, but across the board the birds fed a gradually reduced protein ration were larger than the birds fed the higher protein ration. The actual weight differences were fairly minor, but when one factors in the cheaper feed cost from reducing the protein content the total costs of production were significantly lower for Group B. Specifically, Group A averaged 2.40 lbs. dressed weight while Group B averaged 2.51 lbs. (White Plymouth Rocks — Group A: 2.47 lb., Group B: 2.67 lb.; Barred Plymouth Rocks — Group A: 2.45 lb., Group B: 2.48 lb.; New Hampshire Reds — Group A: 2.28 lb., Group B: 2.38 lb.). Average cost of feed for Group A was $0.3167/lb., while for Group B it was $0.2891/lb. At about 17 lbs. of feed consumed per bird, this resulted in an additional net from Group B of around $1.00 to $1.50 per bird, depending on breed.
I was quite surprised at the difference in body type as well. Even though both groups were finished on straight corn, Group B had significantly higher levels of abdominal fat than Group A. This was by no means an excess of fat, but in fact resulted in a plumper, healthier-looking bird. If I had a choice between birds, I would most certainly opt for the fatter one. (Then again, at our house we consume home rendered lard by the bucketful, so you might take that opinion with a grain of salt).
One great thing about the heritage birds is that they need no encouragement to forage freely. In my experience the birds simply like – perhaps even prefer – to hunt for their food, and will gladly leave a full feeder to wander around and chase insects and devour clovers and such. If space allows and you can minimize predator pressure, I would highly suggest free ranging your own heritage birds to take full advantage of their foraging instincts and abilities. At the very least, move them a minimum of once daily if they are to be confined to a pasture pen. This reduces feed cost and results in a better chicken on the table to boot.
The first question regarding processing heritage birds is when to do it. In short, we shoot for 16 weeks. They will look like they’re ready a good bit before that point, but don’t be fooled: they’ve got a lot more feather mass than your typical CRX. (The CRX is what is called “close-feathered,” a trait it gets from its game bird genetics, while most heritage meat breeds are not.) Once plucked they look like they’ve lost half their volume. In 2013, when we did our first batch for market and actually made a point to keep detailed production records, we processed at 18-1/2 weeks of age. After looking at the growth data I had collected I realized that they grew very little from week 16 until processing day. So for that last two and a half weeks we were feeding these chickens a lot of expensive grain but realizing a much lower feed conversion rate. To be sure, there will be variations from breed to breed and from batch to batch, and some birds may need 18 or even 20 weeks to reach the appropriate butcher weight, but for the tried-and-true breeds mentioned earlier 16 weeks ought to suffice. (That said, 2015 brought some bizarre weather for us — we received nearly half our annual rainfall in the six weeks from the beginning of June to mid-July — which caused a serious slow-down in growth rate of our birds. Even at 20 weeks the average carcass weight was well under 3 lbs.) Also, based on limited experience I would suggest allowing for a few extra weeks if you’re raising birds into the colder fall months. Here in southwest Missouri that would be about mid-October or later. Our last batch of 2014, finished in early November, dressed out fairly small, as mentioned above, I assume because more of the energy from feed was needed for body maintenance and warmth and thus could not go toward weight gain. We saw similar results in 2015.
Here, too, is where the size-specific terminology mentioned earlier comes into play. You may choose to harvest some birds at 12 weeks as “broilers,” some at 16 weeks as “fryers,” and some at 20 or more weeks as “roasters.” (Breed selection, of course, will play an important role regarding weight ranges at each of those points in time.) When selling at the farmers market we currently opt not to push that terminology, for the sake of simplicity, but we gladly make those distinctions with the birds distributed through our Poultry CSA.
If you have a reliable scale, I would recommend doing periodic weight checks as you approach processing day to get an idea of where you’re at. By aiming for around 5 lbs. live weight you’ll get a dressed carcass of 3-1/4 lbs. or so (about 67% average), which to me is just about right. This, I should say, is assuming you’re processing on-farm. If you’re taking your birds in to a custom processor you’ll most likely have to schedule the appointment well ahead of time and won’t have the luxury of last-minute adjustments. In that case, I would recommend sticking to the 16 week date for starters, and perhaps scheduling some others for longer grow-out periods for comparison if you’re so inclined. I would, however, not recommend processing much before 16 weeks, unless you’re deliberately marketing the birds as “broilers.” The big selling point for the heritage birds is that they taste so much better than the fast-growing hybrids (more on this later), and this due to their slow growth and greater age at processing. As you push the processing day forward you’ll begin to lose meat quality, and with it your competitive edge.
The physical aspect of processing heritage birds presents its own set of particulars. Generally speaking, as a result of greater maturity at butcher age the heritage breeds are more difficult to process. One, the hackle feathers are more developed and difficult to cut through or around to make the killing cut. (An alternative you may consider is killing with a sticking knife, which has a narrow two-sided blade that is inserted into the bird’s mouth, severing the blood vessels where the neck meets the head.) Two, the skin is tougher so that making the initial evisceration incision takes a little more effort. A sharp knife is essential when doing any chicken processing but especially so with the heritage breeds. (The Naked Neck, however, is very easy to kill because of its total lack of neck feathers.) Three, connective tissues and membranes are firmer and more developed in the older heritage birds so that evisceration itself takes a bit more effort. And four, the body cavity of the heritage birds is a fair bit smaller than in the CRX, such that a person with larger hands may have a more difficult time eviscerating.
Interestingly, we have found a considerable difference in carcass qualities from breed to breed. In 2013 we did our entire small batch in one day which allowed us easy side-by-side comparisons. My memory has faded a bit, but specifically I recall the White Rocks having tougher skin than others, and the Dominiques having a more sizeable layer of abdominal fat. For the last batch of 2014, where we did our feed trial as mentioned above, the New Hampshire Reds put on significantly less finish fat than did either of the Plymouth Rocks. I don’t know that any of these differences are necessarily repeatable, but I would expect some breeds and varieties to be preferable to others when it comes to processing.
With our current setup, we scald our birds two at a time using a large pot set over a propane burner (these are often sold together as “turkey fryer” kits). I have found that a water temperature of 155 to 160 degrees is just about right for the heritage birds. This is considered a “hard scald.” When the temperature gets up over 165 the skin is often torn in the plucker, and when it dips down below 150 the feathers don’t come out easily, even with an extended scalding time, and we end up with more handwork. Farmers raising the CRX generally aim for a lower “soft scald” temperature — I had one tell me he did his at precisely 134 degrees, others no higher than 145 — but I think that the tougher skin of the heritage birds is more forgiving of the higher temp, and indeed seems to require it. Supposedly the hard scald removes the outer layer of skin, resulting in a diminished appearance and a shortened time the birds can be kept before consumption, but in our attempts at a soft scald (taking about 2 minutes at 135 degrees) the birds were indistinguishable from the others, and as we have the modern luxury of freezing unsold fresh birds we no longer need to worry as much about our marketing timetable.
In my reading I’ve seen multiple references to the difficulty of getting a clean carcass when plucking non-white-feathered birds. Quite simply, I think the problem is overstated, and I don’t know why this concept gets bandied about so much. My best guess is that this little tidbit has simply been passed down through the years, originating at a point in time before the advent of modern plucking methods, and with the stranglehold that the white-feathered CRX has on the poultry market today nobody bothered seeing if it was still true. To be sure, often enough there are a couple of pinfeathers still present on any given finished and packaged carcass, but not to the degree where it would compromise the quality or salability of the bird. In my experience consumers don’t seem to mind, and for some folks — specifically those of certain ethnic groups who traditionally consume non-Cornish-Cross chickens — a few pinfeathers or traces of the feather ‘dye’ serve as verification that these birds are the real deal.
When it comes to chilling, we have decidedly chosen not to cool the chicken carcasses by submersion in cold water. When the hot carcasses are submerged they take on water, up to 10% or so by weight, in effect diluting the flavor of the bird. When the big selling point of the heritage breeds is their dramatically improved table qualities, diluting the flavor does you no favors. So we rinse the carcasses inside and out with cold water, then set them on a clean rack in a dedicated refrigerator to cool and dry. The chilling time is slower than with a cold-water bath, but not slow enough to encourage the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria. An added benefit of the air-chilling is the resultant crisp skin when roasting; it’s difficult to get the skin to crisp up nicely in the oven when the bird has been soaked in water. This allows us to further differentiate our product from what is available elsewhere locally. And though I don’t know for certain, I suspect that the slower air-chilling process results in a finished bird with better texture than its faster water-chilled counterpart.
For those not processing on farm, it would be wise to make certain that the processing costs quoted by custom processors apply specifically to heritage birds; a local state-inspected processor in Missouri currently charges $1.60/bird for the CRX and $2.00/bird for the heritage breeds because they take longer to process. That extra cost is amplified when you consider the fact that you’re not just paying more money but getting a smaller carcass as well. At those numbers, the processing cost per pound of carcass would be approximately $0.35 for the CRX (at a 4-1/2 lb. carcass) and $0.61 for a heritage bird (at a 3-1/4 lb. carcass).
Marketing, of course, presents its own unique challenges. Perhaps first and foremost is the simple fact that very few people even know of the existence of heritage breed chickens. By contrast, for example, many consumers have at least a vague notion of different breeds of beef cattle. I suspect that this is due largely in part of the successful marketing efforts of the Angus Association; if consumers recognize that “Angus beef” is something purportedly special then at the very least they must implicitly recognize that there is “non-Angus beef.” Further, in our area of the country there are many farmers selling beef from various breeds — Angus, Hereford, Devon, Longhorn, and more — through farmers markets and small retail outlets, often with accompanying identifying photographs. And one can hardly drive a mile or two outside the city limits without passing a field full of grazing cattle: black ones, brown ones, red ones, white ones, spotted ones, mottled ones, and on and on. When it comes to chicken, however, most are raised out of sight of road traffic, and local direct-marketing farmers raise “pastured poultry” with no indication of breed, since with very few exceptions they all raise the same thing (CRX) and so the only differentiation to be made is management style. Restaurants might tout their new “Angus burger” but I’ve yet to see one advertising its “Fried Cornish-Rock Cross Chicken Special.”
Then there is the necessarily higher cost of production — and thus higher retail cost per pound — of the heritage breeds over the modern hybrid birds. As a generally bland, boring meat, chicken is seen by many Americans as little more than a throwaway commodity. Why pay more for something when you expect it to be “just chicken”? There is a prevalent bias against chicken, whereby most consumers think that chicken should be lower in price than beef or pork as a rule. As far as I’m concerned, it’s terribly inconsistent to gladly fork over $30 for a beef roast but scoff at paying even $20 for a whole chicken of the same size. But the vertical integration of the poultry industry has driven prices down to the point of absurdity, and it’s up to us as local producers and direct marketers to fight that bias as best we can. As we wrote on our market signage to make clear our opinions: “Only dirty chicken is dirt cheap.”
That said, however, I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of folks who visit our farmers’ market booth that have some knowledge of heritage breed chickens. Some recall seeing the side-by-side growth comparison between a CRX and a non-hybrid bird in the movie Food, Inc. When we mention that the fast-growing hybrids often have leg problems because their muscle growth outstrips their skeleton‘s ability to support that weight, some say something along the lines of “I’ve heard that!” And some come to our booth knowing nothing about heritage birds but ready and willing to learn. Some, surprisingly enough, just say something like “Oh, you have chicken” and plop down the $15 or $20 for a bird without any apparent interest in the heritage breed concept; they just want a chicken.
We only sell whole birds, and our signage indicates this, but every week we get multiple people asking if we have chicken breasts. We smile and kindly tell them that yes we do but the rest of the chicken is attached to those breasts. Perhaps this is bad business practice — many would say you should give the customers what they want — but then I’m not a businessman. And I have serious doubts that people who only buy boneless skinless chicken breasts are the same people who will truly appreciate our food. What’s more, because our birds haven’t been bred for the same production qualities as the hybrid birds they don’t have the same massive breast, and even if we did offer packaged cuts these wouldn’t be what the customers really want anyway. So we have turned this into a learning opportunity as well, a chance to explain the differences between heritage birds and the standard-fare industrial hybrids. We won’t win them all over, but we do gain some sales from such conversations. At the very least we hope to ignite a spark within them; maybe a few years down the road they’ll finally be ready.
Then there are those people who just don’t want to deal with cutting up a whole chicken, who are disconcertingly large in number. This is where a woman comes in handy. My wife will step in at this point and explain to the potential customer (who is almost always a woman) that she, too, used to be squeamish about having to handle a whole bird, but that it’s quite easy to learn and after a time or two it’s no big deal. We also attempt to use this opportunity to explain to the potential customer that she can simply roast the chicken whole, after which cutting it up (for serving) is a lot easier and less “icky”. Plus, this provides them with a meal that can only be better than whatever one might make with boneless skinless chicken breasts.
When we started selling our birds at farmers market our signage had a list of the breeds available. Some folks would ask for a chicken and then ask what breed we would suggest. We used this opportunity to reinforce the superiority of our chickens by referring to the two blind side-by-side tastings we have conducted and how the heritage breeds as a whole are just so much better than the CRX. We tried telling them that although the Speckled Sussex was the consensus winner some participants ranked other birds higher, and really the difference between the Sussex and even the lowest-rated heritage bird was much smaller than the difference between the lowest-rated heritage bird and the pasture-raised CRX. But as might be expected nearly everyone wanted the top-rated Sussex so they went fast, and when they were gone I felt like I had to offer a lesser product to other customers. Now we have reworked our market signage and removed the references to the specific breeds. While we listed them initially with the thought that it would lend some sort of credence to what we were offering, a list of specific breeds rather than a generic “heritage” label, in the end we realized it just gave the customer one more thing they had to try to get right. When they want grass-fed beef, free range chickens, cage-free eggs, heirloom tomatoes, no-spray peaches, non-GMO feed, organic this, natural that, no growth hormones, no antibiotics, no this that and the other, and then they have to make sure they get the right breed of chicken… well, it just seemed a little overwhelming. So now we treat “heritage chickens” as a whole, and it works. The folks who are in the know will ask us what breed or breeds we raise, and we give them all the gory details, but those folks are fairly few and far between. (For that matter, those folks usually raise their own chickens anyway and are only asking out of curiosity.) Now when we mention the blind side-by-side tastings we are especially careful to point out that the heritage birds as a whole are scored so much higher than the CRX, and if pressed for which one is the ‘best’ we play obtuse and just say that it’s wholly subjective.
The point of all of this is that education is the backbone of our marketing. Heritage and heirloom foods are popular — hopefully not merely trendy — but by and large consumers still expect chicken to be cheap protein, so education is vitally important to successfully selling a higher-price-point product. They need to know that chickens aren’t “just chickens.” These are the chickens that grandma really used to eat. (Funny how any pasture-raised chicken seems to get that designation. Kind of like taking a cardboard supermarket hydroponic tomato variety bred to be picked green and shipped from one coast to the other, sticking it in a small market garden and calling it “Tomatoes like grandma used to eat.” But I digress.) What’s more, many consumers, at least those frequenting farmers markets (you can tell the ones; they’re the people filling their multiple reusable bags and baskets with market goodies), want to be educated. Take that opportunity. It’s a win-win.
All of the above marketing advice assumes you are selling your chickens via face-to-face interaction to the end customer, through a farmers market or perhaps on-farm store. This is the only way we have marketed our chickens to date, and is how I would suggest selling your birds as well, at least starting out, because of the amount of education necessary to bring the average consumer up to speed. When the average consumer still thinks of chicken as little more than a cheap throwaway commodity, a mostly bland, neutral base for other flavors, she will have little interest in paying a higher price than is thought normal until she is convinced of the heritage bird’s superiority, and direct face-to-face contact is the best way to accomplish this. There are certainly some markets where consumer interest in and demand for heritage poultry is strong enough to justify offering such products through restaurant menus and retail shops, and by all means each producer ought to research local interest, but those outlets will have their downsides. Around here, the local “farm-to-table” restaurants and small-scale grocery and health food stores can buy locally-raised CRX for less per pound than I can even produce my heritage chickens. And when their patrons and customers are nearly all the above-mentioned average consumers, they would most certainly have a difficult time moving heritage chickens at the necessarily greater price. I had one restauranteur willingly admit that the heritage chickens are a demonstrably better product than the CRX, but that he can take the CRX, season it liberally to add flavor, and keep his customers happy with a flavorful dish at a reasonable price.
I’ve mentioned the taste tests we ran, so now I’ll discuss that in more detail. We have conducted these events twice: once while working at another farm in 2011 (my first experience raising heritage birds), and once in 2013 as the culmination of a grant project comparing multiple breeds. Both were conducted the same way. Each test pitted a variety of heritage breeds up against a local pasture-raised CRX. The birds were each minimally prepared, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and roasted whole. The meat was then picked off and put on numbered plates (with no breed identification), so that each plate contained the meat from one bird. Participants were given a scorecard and instructed to rate each bird for flavor and texture on a 6-point scale (the 6-point scale disallows a “neutral” middle vote and is less demanding of nuance than a 10-point scale). At the conclusion it was revealed which plate contained which breed. The Speckled Sussex was the consensus winner both times, and the other heritage birds fell in line behind it, but the CRX was all by its lonesome at the bottom of the pack. To me, the real takeaway was that they all tasted different and while one person might prefer one breed another preferred another.
To be fair, the most common comment regarding the CRX was not that it tasted bad but that it was “bland,” that there was just little flavor. Not bad, that is, but not good either. (Which raises the question: Do we really want to be raising chickens whose best table quality can be described as “not bad”?) Why this is exactly I‘m not qualified to know, but I think there are a few likely factors to consider. One is age at processing. It is widely recognized that relative age at processing affects flavor, with younger animals being milder than older (think lamb compared to mutton, veal compared to beef, or even a fresh cheddar compared to a 4-year-old cloth-bound version). As pertains to poultry, our heritage birds were processed at 16 to 18 weeks compared to the 6 to 8 weeks of most CRX. Another factor is foraging activity. Grass-fed beef is generally considered to be more fully flavored than corn-fed as a result of the greater diversity of feedstuffs consumed; similarly our heritage chickens range and forage for a greater percentage of their diet than their largely immobile CRX brethren. Thirdly, I wonder if rate of growth is a contributing factor. Many western ranchers consider the lush eastern pasture grasses grown by copious rainfall to be “washy” in comparison to their own “strong” forages which grow slowly and contain more dry matter. Though there are larger quantities of the eastern grass it is relatively low in dry matter, the result of such rainfall causing more rapid growth. Could the CRX, then, be said to be “washy” because of its abnormally fast growth rate? Makes sense to me.
Regarding texture I was curious going into the tastings how this would be perceived. To my knowledge none of the participants had eaten a heritage bird before. The meat of the heritage chickens, in particular the legs and thighs, is denser and firmer than that of the CRX, the result of both age and physical activity, and I wondered if this would be interpreted as “tough” or “chewy” or “stringy” or something similarly negative, but there were no comments and no ratings to that effect. I had previously heard generic rumblings about heritage birds being tough, but I wonder now if such comments are the result of a failure to distinguish between, say, an 18-week-old cockerel and a 2-year-old mature rooster. The former is delicious roasted while the latter ought only to be braised or stewed and will certainly be tough and chewy if roasted. Interestingly, though, younger does not necessarily seem to correlate with more tender meat. With the CRX the breast meat tends quite easily toward dryness while the dark meat might best be described as “soft” or even “mushy” rather than “tender.” Perhaps this, though, is the result more of a sedentary lifestyle than of age or growth rate? At any rate it’s not something I have much interest in eating.
I would highly suggest that anyone interested in raising and selling heritage meat birds conduct a similar tasting event, even if the only participants are a few family and friends. The birds need to be tasted at the same time, side by side, in order to fully appreciate the differences. You can’t prepare a CRX one week and a heritage bird the next and expect to construct a useful comparison from memory. If you are going to convince your potential customers that your heritage birds are better than the fast-growing hybrids available elsewhere, you have to truly know and believe that yourself, and a blind side-by-side tasting is, I think, the only way to do that. Apart from being fun, the taste test is an important part of your marketing strategy.
When it comes to marketing, you also need to be able to offer suggestions for preparation, and there is no substitute for hands-on kitchen time. Sure, you can pass along second-hand information, but you’re never going to be fully confident with that method, and how do you know for certain that it’ll work when you haven’t done it yourself? So, I will detail our most common method of preparation.
Ninety percent of the time we roast our chickens whole. We preheat the oven to 425 degrees, rub the bird down with butter, salt, and pepper, maybe stuff some herbs into the cavity, then set it in a cast iron pot and into the oven. Cooking time will usually be 45 minutes to one hour, depending on size. We start the bird on one side, with the thigh facing upwards, for 15 minutes, then rotate it so that the other thigh is facing upwards for another 15 minutes, then finish it with the breast facing upwards for a final 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. This rotation facilitates cooking the bird evenly, and by applying direct heat on the denser thigh meat it ensures that it gets cooked thoroughly. We emphasize the importance of checking the temperature to make sure the bird is fully cooked. We aim for a reading of 160 degrees in the thick part of the thigh, though I have seen a few cookbooks that suggest stopping at 145 degrees. (By no means should one follow the USDA’s guideline to cook the bird to 190 degrees. Might as well just burn it black.) Counter-intuitively, though, we have found that way overshooting our temperature so that the thermometer reads 180 or 190 degrees does not have a negative effect; it’s apparently quite difficult to dry out the breast meat. And always, always remember to let the bird rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting into it, to allow the juices in the meat to redistribute. This alone can spell the difference between a mediocre bird and a great one. Make sure your customers know this.
There are many options to choose from in the “how to roast a chicken” universe, and I’m not ultimately convinced that one way is necessarily always demonstrably better than any other. But I do wonder if by giving our customers such direct, specific cooking advice we hammer home the distinctiveness of our product. That is, I wonder if they don’t think something along the lines of, “My, this chicken must be different — it even comes with its own specific cooking recommendations.” In other words, perhaps just giving your customers cooking advice is a marketing tool in and of itself.
There are a few other salient points to be made here when dealing with potential customers. One is that we season the birds simply, because the flavor of the meat is so good that that’s what we want to taste. There’s no need to dress up bland chicken with hearty spice rubs or bold sauces; this is chicken that tastes great by itself. Two is that, with the difficulty in overcooking the meat, the customer has a good bit more leeway than with a CRX which can go from perfectly cooked to dry chalky pap in a matter of minutes. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to be a trained chef with a fine-tuned oven and a stopwatch to prepare a great chicken. And three, we make sure to tell the customer to save the carcass for stock. Sure, they can do this with any other chicken as well, but pointing out that they can get two or three meals out of one chicken helps soften the blow of the higher price.
For 2016, we are planning to shift our focus primarily to the 1-lb. poussin, processed at 8 to 10 weeks of age, to hopefully broaden our marketing outlets by bringing restaurant menus into the playing field. This becomes especially important as we seek to move away from the drag of a Saturday spent at the farmers market year-round. This will also allow us to turn over a batch of chicks sooner, reducing our risk of loss to predation — an important consideration, since we faced a significant spike in predation in 2015 and don’t wish to repeat that. Further, it seems that the average customer perceives the poussin (or “Cornish hen”) as something decidedly unique, justifying a higher price point, while many of them still view a heritage breed chicken as “just chicken” and expect it to be cheaper than it can reasonably be.
We will also play around with our rations a bit more, purchasing whole grains, mixing and grinding our own soy-free feed, experimenting with fermented and/ or sprouted grains, and trying to home in on the feed combination that minimizes cost while maximizing table quality. We ground and mixed our own soy-free feeds in 2015, using a combination of corn, wheat, oats, Canadian field peas, sunflower seeds, alfalfa, fish meal, and kelp, though our finish weights were consistently small. Whether that was the result of the feed composition, the bizarre weather, the particular chicken genetics, or some combination thereof we don’t rightly know. For 2016 we aim to use a low protein growing ration that encourages active foraging and then finishing the birds on milk and whole grains, very similar to the famous Bresse chickens of France. Whether this will work to advantage with the poussin or just with an older fryer or roaster I don’t yet know.
2016 will see the second year of our Poultry CSA. More and more I am convinced that this is the way to go, for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because our CSA members are adventurous eaters who know good food when they see it. They’re already sold on the heritage bird concept and require a less demanding marketing strategy.
Lastly, we redirected our marketing approach from “Heritage breed chickens” to “French-style chickens” in 2015 with the idea that, for the average consumer, the latter terminology indicates a more significant qualitative difference over standard-fare chicken, based on the implicit gastronomic expertise of the French. Yes, we know that choosing heritage breeds encompasses a significantly different method of rearing, resulting in a significantly different end product, but the average consumer does not have the agricultural knowledge necessary to make that discernment, and I’m afraid to them the terminology “heritage breed” indicates a difference in breed and little else and is ultimately a nonstarter. Unfortunately, I don’t know yet what effect that had, as all of our birds for 2015 had to be earmarked for our Poultry CSA customers (between losses to predators and torrential rains and floods we had none leftover for other avenues), so we never had a chance to try that marketing angle out at the farmers market. Perhaps next year.
By no means have we learned all the ins and outs of raising and marketing heritage meat chickens, but hopefully this has been informative for those of you considering a similar enterprise on your own farms. We are always fine tuning our model, finding ways to lower production costs, produce a tastier product, and more convincingly market our finished birds. Such is the joy of farming.